Once upon a time, when you were going on holiday, the airport was an exciting place. It was like great big diving board from which you leapt into the vast blue beyond. There were lovely duty free shops and places to eat. Magazines were purchased specifically for the purpose of flipping through them idly en route to some exotic holiday locale.
And then you had children.
Tis true, travel just ain’t the same with kids; but it can be done, and without alienating yourself from the free world. I’m an American expat with three children (all boys) and this is my advice is based on ten years of experience flying with my children on 70+ flight segments, many of them on my own and most of them long haul. I apologize in advance if my remarks seem judgey or heavy handed, or for any offense caused. I realize that your experiences might differ from my own, but I hope something here might ring true for you.
(This is Part Two of our amazing ‘How To Survive Flying With Kids’ Guide. Part 1 is here.)
Child ContainmentTransport Within the Airport
Airports have lots of queues, miles of walkways and lots of people in a hurry. Not the perfect place for a kid’s first steps. For really small babies, a sling/carrier is ideal because it makes it almost as easy to maneuver in an airport as you did before you had kids (enjoy that while it lasts). When they get a little older, a lightweight pushchair is my personal preference for child transport because it carries much more than the child (seriously, you can get really innovative if you have child as a counterbalance). For a time, I maintained a fleet of strollers, but my favorite for travel was our Maclaren Volo. It was sturdy, lightweight, easy to fold, and had a strap for shoulder carrying. When they’re too old for the pushchair but too young to be trusted on their own, consider the harness. I’ve never needed one myself, but I can definitely see the merits.
Car Seats on Planes
I’ve done this before. I think of this as a “nice to do” but not necessary. It was nice because my son was more comfortable and supported in his seat, he didn’t squirm as much as normal; but it was a bit of a faff to carry it and not all seats are appropriate or approved for use on an airplane (can vary by airline). I’ve read and understood the safety concerns, and I do take my children’s safety seriously, but we’ve accepted that there is a certain amount of risk in travel. We ride London buses regularly and would find it hard to believe that standing in a bus traveling 30 mph down the Lee Road is less risky than a child flying with only a lap belt.
The Kid’s Meal
Some airlines are better than others, but I find that the kid’s meal often has a bunch of crap in it that I don’t want my kids to eat on an airplane. Chocolate buttons? Let’s just rename them, “Sticky things they drop and then melt and get smeared on their clothes and the seats.” That said, I do find you’re better off ordering the meal. If it is truly vile, you can usually get one of the attendants to give you an extra adult meal. The adult meals are seldom very sophisticated since they have to feed a wide range of tastes, so it’s not much different than what they eat at home. And it’s far less patronizing.
Do Not Skip the Nap
I know it can be tempting to skip their regularly scheduled nap so that they can sleep on the plane, but do not fall into this trap. What is worse than an over tired toddler? Don’t know? Me neither. Any reason or control you have over that child is dramatically reduced when they’re cranky and overstimulated. You might lose that hour of peace that you were praying for, but my experience is that you could miss your nap window all together and then spent the next several hours catering to the capricious demands of a tiny tyrant who is wired until the moment he passes out cold (usually within the last three minutes of the flight).
How young is too young?
That is entirely up to you as a parent. Each airline is different I think, but most only require that the baby is days old. Early on, it’s more of a risk to the mother than the baby. The youngest I’ve travelled with a child is at 6 weeks, but that was third kid and he was pretty used to being flung around even at that early point. It was actually the easiest flight with a child I’ve done, because all he did was eat, like the little parasite he was. Still, it’s important to note that six weeks is quite young, as the child hasn’t had his immunizations yet. You will need to do your own risk/benefit analysis for that one.
You know your children better than anyone. Would it be for everyone’s best interest if they didn’t sit next to each other on the flight, or not? Sometimes it’s handier to have family seated in front or behind you vs three seats down. Sometimes, it’s better if they’re on a different flight all together. Anyway, my point is, you know your family. Think strategically about seating. The sensible option might not be the most obvious. And remember, seating arrangements aren’t set in stone. If you foresee a real problem, bring it to the attention of the flight attendant. I’ve had situations where airlines have seated my children in different areas of the plane than me. Unfortunately, they were prevailed upon to correct their mistake. (Apparently, it’s too much to ask a complete stranger to watch over an un-potty trained 2 year old.)
Food and Drug
Spend some time going over the rules regarding liquids because this could have an impact on what snacks or medicines you pack. If your child is on formula, Boots can be your best friend. You can preorder formula to be picked up after you go through security from the shop in your terminal. Similarly, if your child is cutting a tooth, you should come prepared with some pain medications. I am not a believer in the merits of giving a perfectly well child a dose of medicine in the hopes that it will calm them, but I do believe that even the merest of aches, when bored and confined on an airplane can become an issue.
I say buy it. If you travel a lot, a yearly policy isn’t that dear and it will provide greater peace of mind for you as a traveling family. Do you really want to worry about change fees on your flight if your darling comes down with chicken pox the day before your trip? What if your son breaks his leg skiing? (I can vouch for the merits of travel insurance based on that experience alone.) Bear in mind that medical costs outside the EU can be dramatic, so even a trip to A&E for stitches can get expensive.
Ten years on, I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve moved past strollers and changing nappies in tiny bathroom cubicles and onto traveling with children who could very likely do the whole trip on their own. That excites me, because I hope to be able to show them a lot more of the world, leaping off from the great diving board that is Heathrow.
Don’t Lose Your Nerve!
It can be daunting to manage a poorly behaved child, but the difference with an airplane is that it is a finite amount of time. If your son or daughter is being a little devil, remember, this isn’t a permanent state. This isn’t your life now, it’s only your life for the next however many hours. You will make it through. Things change from moment to moment. A long flight with kids can be like a war, comprised of several little skirmishes and battles. Try to win as many as possible, but be realistic in picking your fights.
Both Part 1 and 2 are part of our ‘Holidays With Kids’ series. You can find the other posts here.
This blog was written anonymously by one of our wonderful MGFBlogSquad.